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the children at Bethlehem, when Herod could have easily identified the individual child whose life he sought to take
How easy it is to multiply questions and difficulties of this kind, respecting any unusual occurrence in past times, every one must know who has made the experiment, or who has read many of the neological commentaries and essays of the last fifty years. Yet we need something more than merely conjectural difficulties, in order to throw aside facts which are soberly narrated. Let us see, however, whether, after all, the improbabilities of the narration in Matthew are so great, that we must feel constrained to reject the account before us because of them).
The Magi were a Persian and Babylonian order of men, whose business seems to have been the study of religion, and of astrology as connected with it in relation to the science of divination. They were in some respects, to the Orientals, what the Scribes and Pharisees were to the Jews, viz. the iepoyoauuarsis of their country. In the book of Daniel we find them consulted by the Babylonish kings. We find Daniel, moreover, after bis interpretation of Nebuchadnezzar's dream, advanced to the place of president or head of this order of men.
There is then in itself no improbability, that men among the Jews of the East (ανατολή) who were like to the γραμματείς in Palestine, were called, after the usual fashion of the eastern country, Magi. Daniel had belonged to this so-called order of men; other Jews might belong to it without reproach.
Magi there were in the East, then ; and Magi may have been, and probably were, among the Jews who lived there. Had not the Jews of the East copies of the Jewish Scriptures in their hands? Undoubtedly they had. Did they not, at the time when the Saviour was born, lopy for and ardently expect the coming of the Messiah? What says Suetonius of that period? In his Vespas. c. IV. he says: Percrebuerat Oriente toto vetus et constans opinio, esse in fatis, ut eo tempore Judaeâ profecti rerum potirentur. To the same purpose Tacitus, Hist. V. 13: Pluribus persuasio inerat, antiquis sacerdotum literis contineri, eo ipso tempore fore, ut valesceret Oriens, profectique Judaeâ rerum potirentur. Deep, then, must this persuasion have rooted itself in the minds of the Jews, and wide must it have been spread, in order to give birth to such language as this by heathen historians. Josephus himself, a Pharisee and of the priestly order, uses almost the same expressions : *Hv χρησμος αμφίβολος ομοίως εν τοις ιερούς γράμμασιν, ως, κατα τον καιρόν εκείνον, από της χώρας της αυτων άρξει της οικουμένης Bell. Jud. VI. 5. 4. i. e. there was a prediction moreover, in their sacred books, which was susceptible of various writings, that about that time, some one of their own number and country should have the dominion of the world.'
Jewish Magi of the East, then, (percrebuerat toto Oriente), cherished the expectation that the King of Israel was to make bis appearance about that time. To the Jews of the East, moreover, as well as of the West, his birth was signified by the star of which Matthew speaks. That there was something supernatural in the admonition to the Magi, I readily admit and most fully believe. Why is not this as probable as the angelic song on the plains of Bethlehem, and the song or prophecy of Zacharias, of Simeon, and of Anna, as related by Luke? all of which Mr. Norton on his own grounds is constrained to admit.
Let us now turn our attention to some other circumstances alleged by Mr. Norton. The Star,' he says, ' led them to Jerusalem; and there, distrusting its guidance, the Magi made inquiry where the new-born King of the Jews was. Afterwards it reappeared and guided them to the very house in Bethlehem, where Jesus and his mother were.'
Yet this is an account of the matter somewhat different from that which I believe to be exhibited in Matt. II. I understand the Magi as saying, in Matt. 2: 2, “We have seen his star, when we were in the East, and we have come to do him homage.” That a meteor of an extraordinary nature did appear to them in their own country ; that the place of this meteor was west from where they then were, and of course in the direction of Judaea ; that an impression was divinely made on their minds of the significancy of this extraordinary luminous body, (which the writer, as any Greek would do, calls doing), that in consequence of this, and in connection with the general and ardent expectations of a Jewish king as mentioned above, they set out upon their journey to pay an early and joyful homage to this new king ; is what Matthew relates, and what no one is able to gainsay by shewing either the impossibility or the improbability of it. That ev in avarodņ means, as I have rendered it, while we were in the East, is plain enough from the fact, that if the star had been eastward of them, they would
Vol. XII. No. 32.
have travelled of course in that direction, and not have gone to Jerusalem.
But does Matthew say, as Mr. Norton represents bim as saying, that the star led them to Jerusalem,' that is, accompanied them on their way thither? Not at all. The guidance afforded them was purely its first appearance, the direction in which it appeared, and the strong expectation that the King of the Jews was about to be born. When persuaded that his birth had taken place, where should they go to make inquiry respecting him but to the capital of Judea ? The star they did not see on their way. At least, so Matt. 2: 9 would seem very plainly to intimate. It was not until they had commenced their journey from Jerusalem to Bethlehem, that the meteor again appeared. “When they saw it they rejoiced greatly ;" as it was very natural they should do. “It came and stood over the house where the young child was ;" which shews that now, at least, its course was low down in the atmosphere, so low that it could designate any particular locality by standing over it. Is any part of all this more miraculous, more incredible, than the account of Luke as to events during the infancy of the Saviour ? No one can establish the allegation that it is.
But Herod, we are told, is made to act a very improbable and foolish part.' Improbable, however, I do not deem it. Could it be possible that Herod was ignorant of the universal expectation, among the Jews, of the appearance of their King Messiah, who, as they confidently believed, would enable them to throw off both his and the Roman yoke, and make them masters of the world? If this be possible, it is utterly improbable. Did not Herod know that the Jews most heartily bated him, and were longing to be delivered from his tyranny ? He doubtless did. His precautions, his jealousies, his suspicions always on the alert, his military guards, his repeated and horrible cruelties toward even his own family and some of his best friends, because of bis jealousy and suspicion—all these serve to shew what might be expected from Herod, the moment he heard of a new-born King, to whom the whole Jewish nation would joyfully and eagerly pay their homage. Herod deride such a matter as this, and treat it with scornful neglect! Why one might as well expect Nero or Caligula to put up with a personal insult, and meekly to remonstrate with him who should smite them in their faces. Nothing could be more in unison with Herod's character and whole temperament, than the order for the massacre at Bethlehem.
* But Herod is represented as guilty of the consummate folly of an indiscriminate massacre, when nothing could have been easier than to identify the individual child whose life be sought.'
Herod then, a more passionate, cruel, and despicable tyrant, if possible, than Nero himself, is expected, it would seem, to make minute inquiry which of all the babes at Bethlehem was the one that he should wish to destroy. Where is he to get the information ? According to Matt. 2: 5 seq. Herod did assemble the chief priests and scribes of the people, and demand of them where o Xplorós, i. e. the Messiah whom they expected, was to be born. They said : At Bethlehem. This was enough for Herod; and this they argued from prophecy, as their appeal to it shews, and not from any information which they had respecting what was revealed to the Magi. It matters not as to Herod, whether we suppose that he believed in prophecy or not; it was enough that the Jews believed in it. It is enough for our purpose that he knew, that if either a real or supposed Messiah was born, the Jews would rally around him at once, and overthrow their present oppressor. Herod moreover meant to be secure against any mistake or failure on this occasion ; and so he ordered an indiscriminate massacre.
If Mr. Norton should say : ‘Jesus had been presented in the temple, and there public acknowledgement was made of him, so that Herod might have traced him out individually ;' my answer would be, What probability that Herod knew any thing of all this? Herod was at Jerusalem but a small portion of his time. His concerns led him elsewhere; and Cesarea was the place where he enjoyed most popularity and had the most adherents. Even if he had been at Jerusalem, during the time of the presentation, he would have been one of the last men to whom pious persons would have been likely to communicate the knowledge of a new-born King. There is no probable way in which we may suppose bim to have known, or believed that he could obtain an individual knowledge of the exact place where Jesus was. Of course the indiscriminate massacre in question was the ready and obvious dictate of bis jealous and cruel spirit. Subsequent to such a massacre, there could be no pretence among the Jews, that the new-born king, after all, had escaped the hands of the assassins, and some other babé been murdered in its place. An indiscriminate massacre, then, would plainly be viewed by Herod, as essential to the extinguishment of the rising Jewish hope in respect to their long wished for king.
And is it not plain too, that, because of such a massacre, all the then present and rising hopes of the Jews, even of the pious, (who knew not of the flight of Joseph and Mary), were actually extinguished ? On what other ground can we account for the deep and long silence of all Judea, during nearly thirty years, in relation to the new-born king, whose birth had been ushered in by so many prodigies, even if Luke's account of the matter, and no more, is to be admitted ? It has often been matter of wonder among the pious, and of scoffing among the impious, that after all the miraculous annunciations of the Saviour, and the prodigies attending his birth, there should for thirty years be such a profound and mysterious silence in Judea with respect to him. Where were the Simeons and the Annasthe shepherds on the plains of Bethlehem and those to whom the glad tidings had been published by them and others? Why was not the glorious Redeemer, in his humble and quiet occupation at Nazareth, sought out, and brought forward to the potice of the admiring world ?
My answer would be, that the massacre at Bethlehem extinguished all the rising hopes of the pious Jews in that quarter, and dissipated the fears of the ungodly. Providence so ordered it, that Jesus should be withdrawn in the dead of night to Egypt, and none should know of bis escape. His return was to a distant, obscure, and despised town of Galilee, where no Jew would expect to find him, and therefore none would go to seek bim. There his parents and he waited in quiet and in silence, until the proper time for the commencement of his ministry arrived. Had they noised abroad his origin and his pretensions, during his early life, danger would have followed, civil and religious cominotions been excited, the jealousy of tetrarchs stirred up, and unnumbered evils have been the natural and immediate consequenoe. As things were ordered, all this was prevented. And that this prevention was the result of some such occurrence as the massacre at Bethlehem, which extinguished all present hopes about the new-born king, seems to my mind so probable, that I oan in no way account for it in a manner that is satisfactory, how things went on as they actually did, without a supposition of some suoh event as Matthew has related.
I cast myself now on the candour of my readers, and ask them, whether there is any such incongruities and improbabilitjes in Matthew's Gospel of the Infancy, as Mr. Norton urges